"Crazy things can come true," Musk said. "I didn't really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it's amazing when they do.". . . "I've seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it's a big relief for when it actually works," he added.
On February 6, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket, an unprecedented feat in the history of space exploration that not only sent a Tesla roadster into orbit around the sun and Mars; it landed two of the rocket’s three reusable boosters back on Earth intact. SpaceX’s achievement was no overnight wonder, however. Founder Elon Musk first announced the Falcon Heavy project in 2011, predicting launch by 2013, yet five more years of testing, innovation, development, and experimentation were needed to achieve this goal. Of course, a large and complex team finally made the launch possible, but the true rocket fuel driving the entire SpaceX enterprise emanates from SpaceX founder Elon Musk himself, through his powerful vision of making humanity into a spacefaring civilization.
Vision is more than just a compelling idea about the future – it’s the very heart of leadership. Vision is the source of a leader’s energy, the spark that ignites a flame in others, and the sustaining fire that powers the entire organization towards achieving its goals. A leader’s most important responsibility is to formulate a vision for the organization and to cast that vision so compellingly that it instills the leader’s passion in others’ hearts as well. Without vision, an organization ceases to achieve forward momentum. Without the vision of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the US might still be a British colony. Without President John F. Kennedy’s vision of manned spaceflight, Neil Armstrong may never have stepped foot on the Moon. Or would we have made as much progress in space exploration without the creative visions of the future cast by Jules Verne, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas? Even on a smaller scale, cellular telephones were directly inspired by communication technologies in Roddenberry’s StarTrek, and Elon Musk named the Falcon rocket project for the Millennium Falcon in Lucas’s StarWars. Dreams can and do become reality.
Vision alone, however, is impotent without subsequent action. Furthermore, a vision nearly always requires a dedicated team to bring it to life, radiating out through concentric circles of stakeholders who partake in a shared idea of what the future could be.
How does the process begin? Visions sometimes strike like a bolt from the blue, but they might also dawn slowly, built on a leader’s years of gathered experiences and observations. Conversely, vision might depend on a leader’s deliberate act of will, engaging in a thorough and thoughtful analysis of present conditions and considering what will be necessary to lead the organization into a better future. Regardless of how the vision emerges, it remains only an intellectual idea unless it’s harnessed to passion. Leaders cannot just think their visions are worthwhile – they must believe in the vision to the core of their being. Visions should be so strong, so compelling, that leaders would gladly pursue them without support; they must be so committed to a vision that they embody it, unhesitatingly working towards the vision’s achievement with their own hands. Former President Jimmy Carter didn’t just serve as a spokesman for Habitat for Humanity: he put on his old clothes and swung a hammer alongside the other workers. George Washington could have spent the winter of 1777-78 in the comfort of Philadelphia, but he chose to stay with his troops at Valley Forge, sharing in their hardships and using the bleak winter to train them for the challenges to come. This kind of participatory, self-sacrificing leadership is more inspiring than any pep talk. Others see this commitment and cannot help but be moved. But unless the leader is 110% passionate about the vision and personally invested in its achievement, nobody else will be inspired to act. The leader’s passion and action combine to form the lynchpin upon which the successful achievement of the entire vision depends.
Once recognized, the vision must be shared, but casting this vision across the organization as a whole should occur in three stages. First, the leader should gather support by meeting individually with members of his or her core leadership team to share the vision as a private conversation between colleagues. The more such meetings can occur the better, igniting the imaginations of the core group’s members and building a strong base of support. The next step is to bring those individuals together, discussing the vision and working in concert to craft a vision-casting presentation for the entire organization. The team helps to anticipate and work through potential problems, providing valuable insights that the leader might not have considered. Sharing the vision among the members of the core group multiplies everyone’s passion, fostering the ownership and commitment that will be essential for implementing the vision. The team must also clarify and crystalize the vision into a short, inspirational, memorable statement. In The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization (2011), management expert Peter Drucker said that an effective statement should be “short and sharply focused. It should fit on a T-shirt. . . . It must be clear, and it must inspire. Every board member, volunteer, and staff person should be able to see the [statement] and say, ‘Yes. This is something I want to be remembered for.’” A vision statement should immediately communicate why action is imperative, whereas mission statements tell how the organization will achieve its purpose. Vision statements are less comprehensive than mission statements but more inspirational, and they might be specific to a particular initiative or project rather than attempting to encapsulate the organization’s overall purpose for existence. A crystalized vision statement also provides focus and prevents distractions by allowing the organization to differentiate between actions that support the vision and those that do not.
The last stage in casting the vision is to persuasively present it to all of the organization’s stakeholders. Timing is important, with natural starting points of the organization’s year tending to be most advantageous. In higher education, this usually happens at the beginning of the fall semester when everyone is preparing for the new academic year, and a second opportunity for a fresh start occurs in January after the semester break. It’s very important that the leader personally deliver the vision-casting message, convincingly communicating his or her passion for the vision. Nevertheless, vision-casting events cannot rely only on a prepared speech, no matter how heartfelt. Incorporating creative elements designed to accentuate the emotional content of the message such as multimedia presentations, storytelling, music, and drama draws upon the power of the arts to reach beyond the audience’s intellect, stirring their hearts to truly catch the spark of the vision. An effective vision-casting presentation will amplify passion far beyond the leader’s original vision, producing joy, energy, determination, and ownership. The audience should respond with enthusiastic affirmation – “Yes!” “This is why I’m part of this organization!” “This is what I’ve dedicated my life to achieve!” It’s the rocket fuel that propels the organization into the future.
Once the vision has spread across the organization, the leader must direct this newfound energy towards achievement. Implementation of a vision demands a different set of skills than vision-casting, but the process occurs in similar stages, beginning, again, with the core leadership team. Collaborative strategic planning catalyzes energy into accomplishment. The team must work in concert to transform the abstract ideas of the vision into concrete action steps with measurable and achievable goals. Vision statements only address the key question of “Why?” but the team will need to identify answers to many other questions as well. Where are we now? Where do we want to be? What will we need to do in order to get there? How can we divide the work into manageable steps? Who will take responsibility for making each step happen? The team might also need to revisit the organization’s mission statement and previous goals to ensure that every effort contributes to the actualization of the vision.
The strategic plan should establish measurable and achievable long-term goals, broken down into short-term targets. As the team leaders work with the organization’s members to implement the vision, the leader’s role changes from vision-caster to vision-sustainer. Vision naturally diminishes and grows cold across the organization without regular infusions of the leader’s passion and energy, just as a bonfire needs fresh logs to keep it burning. It is the leader’s duty to sustain the flame, in one-on-one interactions, team meetings, and occasional gatherings of the entire organization’s membership. The team members who have accepted responsibility for leading implementation of the action steps should collect data as the process moves forward. Progress fuels continued momentum, and celebrating the achievement of each action step also helps to keep the organization’s energy level high.
Furthermore, the leader must discern where forward momentum is lagging or where individual commitment has faded, determining how best to apply motivation to address the problem. This stage of leadership requires application of the leader’s management skills, pressing on towards the goal with relentless resolve even when decisions might be painful or difficult. Action steps sometimes fail, and projects often reach dead ends. We often have to pick ourselves up and start over again. Elon Musk said he’d seen rockets blow up in a thousand different ways, which was why he was so overjoyed at the success of the Falcon Heavy launch. Part of leadership is to endure many failures along the way, sustaining the vision even in the face of repeated setbacks. Diligence, commitment, dedication, and unflagging resolve are all essential to visionary leadership, as is unflinching willingness to pitch in and work with one’s own hands.
Leadership is messy and frustrating and disheartening sometimes. Even when we know our mission is urgent, even though our vision still compels us, we grow weary. We provide the fuel that sustains vision in those we lead, but how do we maintain our own energy? By remaining committed to the continual development of our leadership practices and potential. Finding a mentor, reading voraciously about leadership, and seeking the company of other leaders who can serve as a support system are just a few ways that we can continue to grow as leaders, refueling our passion for our work.
Vision at its best takes on a life of its own. It endures beyond the leader who cast the vision, beyond the leadership team, and sometimes even beyond the organization itself. Space exploration outlasted both President John F. Kennedy and drastic cutbacks in NASA’s budget and operations, now taken up by visionaries like Elon Musk. The fight for civil rights continues to the present day, half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Democracy has grown beyond the work of Adams and Jefferson and spread across the globe.
In this same vein, no leader remains in his or her position forever. Perhaps the greatest legacy we can give the organizations we lead is a vision that carries the organization forward well into the future. The fire we ignited in the hearts of others has grown to a stable, sustaining flame, ensuring that our efforts will continue long after our own leadership has come to an end. This is truly the measure of success – to inspire, establish, and provide for the sustainability of something larger than ourselves.
As academic administrators, we maintain a passion for our disciplines and for training young scholars to advance the borders of human knowledge beyond our classrooms. We deeply believe in facilitating our students’ success, equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and competencies they will need to achieve sustainable careers. We motivate our faculty to share in these dreams and to work with us towards their achievement, and we inspire our students to develop dreams of their own. Therefore, our ability to cast a vision is an important part of academic leadership, supported by the application of management techniques to sustain that vision. Furthermore, we not only need to fuel the passion of those we lead but must replenish our own passion through the continuous study of leadership. It’s a tall order, to be sure. Nevertheless, the visions we cast will endure beyond our time as deans, chairs, directors, provosts, or presidents. We strengthen the academic enterprise, but even more importantly our efforts make a lasting impact on our students. We touch thousands of lives over the course of our careers, both directly and indirectly through our faculty and staff. A vision for improving graduation rates, for example, is not a matter of mere statistics – the life of each student who graduates as the result of our efforts is demonstrably improved by the implementation of our vision. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of what we do, to be preoccupied by our daily responsibilities. Keeping our eyes fixed on a compelling vision and allowing it to re-energize our passion for higher education might just be the most important thing we do as academic leaders.
AXIOM: Vision is the heart of leadership but it must be coupled with concrete action by all members of the organization to bring that vision to life.
 Drucker, P. (2011). The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. John Wiley & Sons.